Coming off an impressive NCAA tournament run and now with its highest preseason ranking in 21 years, Louisville is facing some major expectations.
It’s had to wait quite a while to start living up to them.
The third-ranked Cardinals will become the last of the 343 Division I teams to kick off their season as they host Morehead State in the first game of the Billy Minardi Classic on Saturday.
Louisville (27-9) began last season sixth in the preseason AP Top 25, its highest ranking prior to a season since it was No. 2 in 1987. The Cardinals got off to a rough start, however, losing three times in their first eight games to unranked opponents to fall out of the poll.
Those struggles didn’t last. Coach Rick Pitino’s team won 19 of its next 22 - going 4-0 against ranked opponents - and Louisville made it to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament before falling to top-ranked North Carolina.
The Cardinals’ biggest loss was up front, where they’re missing departed center David Padgett, who was the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-11 and the leading scorer (11.2 points per game) last season.
The addition of freshmen centers Terrence Jennings and Samardo Samuels could offset Padgett’s loss. The 6-foot-8, 255-pound Samuels was a McDonald’s All-American and the high school player of the year last season, and he’s expected to contribute right away.
“I try not to think about it because I’m not going to be David Padgett and he’s not going to be Samardo Samuels,” Samuels said. “We’re two totally different players.”
Junior forward Earl Clark (11.1 ppg) will also be asked to step up, after a late-season surge in 2007-08. Clark averaged 14.7 points on 61.4 percent shooting to go with 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in the team’s final six contests.
Clark considered entering the NBA draft, but decided to return for his junior season.
“I was happy he came back,” Pitino said. “But he needs to go to work. He needs to learn just showing up isn’t good enough.”
While Clark will play a major role in how far the Cardinals ultimately go this season, neither he nor Samuels is the team’s most important player. That would be Jennings, a 6-foot-9, 220-pounder who figures to fit in well in Pitino’s new up-tempo offense.
“Samardo can get it done, but Samardo is going to get in foul trouble because they’re going to flop on him all the time. Every time he moves, they’re going to go down for the count. So when you sub T.J. in for him, he can’t bring guys down,” Pitino said.
Pitino expects to run with point guard Andre McGee and Edgar Sosa, but doesn’t figure anyone will be logging too many minutes. Forward Terrence Williams played 35.9 minutes per game last season, something Pitino thinks will be a rarity in 2008-09.
“We’re going to play so fast that you have to come out because you can’t go major minutes,” Pitino said. “You have to substitute. We need our depth to play that way.”
The Cardinals shouldn’t have much trouble with Morehead State (0-3). The Eagles, who went 15-15 last season, are 0-3 and average just 57.3 points.
They played well against another NCAA tournament team from last season in the first half of their latest game. Morehead State led Drake 39-35 at halftime, but lost 86-70 on Wednesday.
Junior forward Maze Stallworth had 26 points for the Eagles.
Louisville has won 11 in a row over Morehead State, the latest a 73-49 victory on Dec. 26 at Freedom Hall. The winner will play either South Alabama or Florida A&M on Sunday.